HSU Readies for National Sustainability Contest

A team of Humboldt State University students from the Renewable Energy Student Union is competing late this month for up to $75,000 in technology design awards from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, aimed at fostering sustainability in both the developed and developing world.

The sixth annual EPA competition is nicknamed the P3-Awards, for ‘People, Prosperity and the Planet.” Based on a $10,000 phase-one prize it won last fall, the HSU team is a contestant in this month’s National Sustainable Design Expo in Washington, D.C., April 24-25, sponsored by the EPA. More than 40 universities are entered.

Humboldt State undergraduate and graduate students used the initial $10,000 to further the research and design of their project, a low-cost micro-hydroelectric system that employs Smart Grid technology, based on Smart Grid software logic programmed into a micro-controller. The team successfully designed, built and tested GridShare prototypes that shift electrical loads to offset brownouts. The GridShare device is designed for installation near the electrical meter of every house. The technology encourages load shifting in two ways: it indicates the state of the grid to the user and prevents use of large appliances during brownouts.

The objective is to spur village consumers to ration their use of high-powered electrical appliances such as rice cookers and water boilers to periods of low demand. This would help to curb disruptive brownouts during peak hours of the morning and evening.

Humboldt State’s P3 competitors are Margaret Harper, a graduate student (2012) in energy environment and society, from Harrisonburg, VA; Joseph Hiller, an undergraduate senior in studio art (2012) from Fortuna, who previously pursued a degree in environmental resources engineering (ERE); Kyle Palmer, systems engineer and project advisor alumnus (’07 ERE), from Boulder, CO; James Robinson, IV, ERE undergraduate, December 2010, from Greeley, CO; Jennifer Tracy, graduate student in energy, environment and society, May 2010, Ravensdale, WA; James Apple, ERE undergraduate, May 2010, of Palo Alto; Nathan Chase, ERE undergraduate, May 2011, from Vancouver, British Columbia; and Chhimi Dorji, graduate student in energy, environment and society, December, 2010, from Thimphu, Bhutan.

If the team wins phase two funding in the National Sustainable Design Expo, plans call for installing the system in the village of Rukubji, Bhutan, in collaboration with local residents, the Bhutan Power Corporation and Bhutan’s Department of Energy. The project would evaluate the potential at village-level of GridShare technology, which HSU students say harbors the promise of renewable energy mini-grids in thousands of communities worldwide.

ERE Professor Arne Jacobson is faculty advisor to the Renewable Energy Student Union (RESU) and the P3 Project Team, and Dr. Peter Lehman of the Schatz Energy Research Center also advises on the initiative.

This is not the first time the RESU has garnered national attention in the EPA’s P3 competition. In 2008, a seven-member team received an honorable mention after gaining a $10,000 phase one grant for a year-long wind monitoring project to test Humboldt County’s large potential for energy-saving wind farms.

Three years ago, RESU students garnered some $5,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO, to mount a student-led Solar Radiation Monitoring Station atop the Humboldt State Library. The data gathering supports a national effort to characterize the nation’s solar energy resources and expand the use of clean and renewable resources in concert with the Redwood Alliance.

Of this month’s Expo, Jacobson said his RESU team has a solid chance of building on past success. He said the students have the diverse skill set necessary to complete their project successfully. Project members have technical, social and cultural expertise, he noted, and mutually advantageous backgrounds in energy policy, systems engineering and management and international development.

Together, Jacobson and Lehman have more than 50 years of experience in the renewable energy sector, including Jacobson’s long international experience in research work in multiple developing countries.